Review: Answer Man

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by Susan Giffone [author, academic]

July is the time for magazines at the grocery checkout to offer recipes for “lite” this and “easy” that.  George Gershwin’s famously observed, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” Answer Man, a light romantic comedy with a 1940s feel, will open, appropriately, on July 24.  In spite of its heavy-seeming premise, the film is mostly an excuse for taking your sweetie out for dinner and a movie.  Because “Answer Man” is only 95 minutes long, perhaps you can add a walk afterward along a tree-lined city street.

Screenwriter and first-time director John Hindman introduces us to Arlen Faber, the reculsive author of Me and God, a book that has redefined spirituality for an entire generation.  This premise will immediately ring true to any believer who has marveled at all the “life-changing” books on the shelves of Christian bookstores and the many products marketed in tandem (and may bring a wince).  On the eve of the 20th anniversay of his enduringly popular book, Arlen is still sought after as the man who has all the answers.

Hindman’s characters are quirky, but not randomly so.  As Kris, a young man just out of rehab, Lou Taylor Pucci manages to seem like someone we all know and want to root for.  Lauren Graham, as Elizabeth, is a low-key Lorelai Gilmore, throttled back from 78 rpms to 33 1/3.  Jeff Daniels portrays Arlen, the writer-turned-recluse.  The first thing we hear out of Arlen’s mouth is a string of profanities.  The joke is on us: not only does he not know all the answers, he is a miserable human being. This language, employed throughout, earns the film an R-rating.

Old-fashioned back trouble forces Arlen out into the real world where he meets, and is smitten with, Elizabeth, the single mother of seven-year-old Alex (Max Antisell).  Arlen sets about trying to win Elizabeth, but 20 years of solitude have left his game a bit rusty, with some amusing results.

While Arlen talks the talk, Elizabeth puts her simple philosophy into action.  She became a chiropractor because she wants to help people.  When sympathy is needed, she does not hesitate to offer a loving touch.  She asks Arlen, “What good are the gifts we have if we don’t share them?”

And she’s right.  Christians believe in the power of love.  We believe people can truly change.  Answer Man slyly pokes fun at the tendency of believers to swarm all over the latest spiritual “how-to” book, as if Jesus Himself were not the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Hindman seems to be saying that love can conquer all, if we let it.

The film is optimistic.  Love really does conquer all, especially us.  Hindman is insightful enough to include several definitions of love, not the usual “eros-only” approach.  He is careful to show that love between a man and woman will not endure if either of them fails to at least aspire to agape (self-sacrificial love) and philia (friendship). And even though we can see it coming, it’s fun to watch Arlen evolve into a real human. Arlen, Elizabeth, Alex and Kris need to adjust to make room for each other.  We have the privilege of sitting back in our comfy seats in the air-conditioned theater and watching the characters do the scary work of letting each other in.

Strangely, though writer/director John Hindman has worked as a stand-up comic, the movie offers few real laughs.  Its wry tone is better calculated to elicit a knowing smile from moviegoers.  Tony Hale from Arrested Development and Chuck provides comic relief as a fawning mailman.

The weak spot of the movie, strangely, is Arlen’s attraction to Elizabeth.  True, she is beautiful, confident and kind.  But has he known her long enough for her to be his muse?

But this is a romantic comedy, not real life.  While devoid of sex and violence, Answer Man earns its R rating for language, including copious use of the f-bomb.  If profanity makes your ears hurt, you might want to skip Answer Man and watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday instead.  You and your sweetie can still take a walk and maybe even have money left over for a cup of coffee after that. ExileStreet

Susan Giffone is a staff writer for MovieMinistry.com, and is based in the New York City area.

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